Wednesday, March 29, 2017

El Salvador bans metalic mining

El Salvador's National Assembly today unanimously passed legislation banning metallic mining, including gold mining in the country.   The new law follows a years long struggle against mining companies by environmental activists, and makes the country the first in the world to enact a nationwide ban on metallic mining.    Recent strong endorsements of the legislation by the Roman Catholic church and by the Jesuit-run University of Central America appeared to create the additional momentum needed to make the bill become law.

A New York Times article on the passage of the law highlighted the environmental concerns which prompted the legislation:
The risks of mining in El Salvador, however, are especially acute. The tiny country is densely populated and the second-most environmentally degraded country in the Americas, after Haiti, according to the United Nations. 
“Mining is an industry whose primary and first victim is water,” said Mr. McKinley, who added that El Salvador faced a significant scarcity. “We are talking about an issue that is a life-or-death issue for the country.” 
Mr. Wright, the legislator who worked to persuade his business-friendly party to support the law, said that climate change was already having an impact on El Salvador. “More than a theory or an uncertain science that it might have been 10 years ago, today for Salvadorans, it is a reality,” he said.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Amnesty or restorative justice?

Nine months after El Salvador's Supreme Judicial Court nullified a 1993 amnesty law which blocked the prosecution of war crimes committed during the country’s civil war, the online periodical El Faro now reports that the FMLN government of Salvador Sánchez Cerén is preparing draft legislation to implement the court ruling and replace the amnesty law.

The government is reportedly working with a Colombian lawyer, Juanita Goebertus, who is represented to be an expert in "transitional justice" and who worked on the peace accords signed in 2016 between the government of Colombia and the FARC guerrillas.

One issue which must be addressed in this effort is the definition of what acts committed during the war are still protected from prosecution.  The ruling of the court only nullified the amnesty law as it applied to "crimes against humanity."   Acts which do not rise to the level of a crime against humanity are still protected by the amnesty law:  

Los hechos excluidos de la amnistía tras la finalización del conflicto armado, son los casos contenidos en el Informe de la Comisión de la Verdad, así como aquellos otros de igual o mayor gravedad y trascendencia, que pudieran ser imputados a ambas partes… 
[y] hechos que puedan calificarse como crímenes de lesa humanidad y crímenes de guerra constitutivos de graves violaciones al Derecho Internacional Humanitario. 
The acts excluded from the amnesty after the conclusion of the armed conflict are the cases contained in the report of the Truth Commission, as well as those others of equal or greater gravity and transcendence, that could be attributed to both parties…. 
[and] acts that could be characterized as crimes against humanity and war crimes constituting serious violations of International Human Rights.
On one extreme, everyone agrees that a massacre of hundreds of children and civilians like the massacre at El Mozote is a crime against humanity.    On the other extreme, if there was an armed skirmish between the Salvadoran armed forces and guerrilla fighters, if a guerrilla shot and killed a soldier and/or a soldier shot and killed a guerrilla during the skirmish, those deaths would remain subject to the amnesty law.  

But where do you draw the line between those extremes?   Is it the number of civilian victims?    That might suggest that the assassination of Oscar Romero is not a crime against humanity because it was a murder of a single civilian.    If it is not the number of victims, what are the special circumstances which make something a crime against humanity?    If armed forces massacred a campesino family of 5 people, is that massacre standing alone a crime against humanity?  If guerrillas kidnapped and murdered a prominent businessman, is that a war crime?

Up to now, the only real guidance from the court is that El Salvador should look to the UN Truth Commission Report for examples of crimes against humanity.   Purportedly the legislation to be introduced will attempt to provide a more robust definition.

The second issue which must be addressed is whether perpetrators of crimes against humanity will face criminal punishment including jail time.    The El Faro report suggests that both ARENA and the FMLN would like legislation in which the possibility of jail time is eliminated.  What is left unclear is what process will exist to judge responsibility for these crimes and what reparations might be available to victims.    Nor is it clear if the victims have had a voice in defining any of this process.

What might restorative justice look like in El Salvador with respect to the wounds of 12 years of civil war?    A good illustration is provided by the International Tribunal for the Application of Restorative Justice in El Salvador.   This tribunal has been annually sponsored by the Human Rights Institute at the University of Central America (IDHUCA) since 2009.   International human rights lawyers and judges come to El Salvador for three day sessions to hear the testimony of victims of massacres and other crimes committed during the civil war.   While the tribunal has no actual power, it provides an opportunity for the victims to be heard and acknowledged, many of them for the first time.  This week the tribunal will again be convening, this year in Morazan department.

There is much to debate in deciding how the crimes of the past should be addressed.  Victims voices need to be heard.  Unfortunately, the parties with the power to write legislation are the parties with the greatest incentive to be closer to amnesty than justice.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Playa El Tunco

El Salvador is blessed to have a coastline with scores of scenic beaches.   These beaches are an important source of job-creating tourism.

One of those beaches is Playa El Tunco. located just to the west of Puerto La Libertad on El Salvador's Pacific coast.    The waves attract surfers, and the beautiful location attracts everyone else.  The beach area features a growing number of small hotels, restaurants and bars.   On a recent visit in mid-March,  the area was bustling with North American tourists including both surfers and others on spring break.  The area will be overwhelmed with beach lovers during Holy Week in mid-April.

According to the Ministry of Tourism, the Playa El Tunco area saw an investment of $11.6 million from 2014-2016 generating a significant number of direct and indirect jobs.   Similar levels of investment are occurring down the coast from El Tunco at Playa El Zonte where four new small hotels are opening during 2017 which are expected to generate more than 250 direct and indirect jobs in the area.

Some photos taken at Playa El Tunco in mid-March:

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Human development in El Salvador

The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) recently released its 2016 report titled "Human Development for Everyone."   The report looks at human development across the globe in the context of the UNDP's "human development index" (HDI).    The HDI is a “a composite index measuring average achievement in three basic dimensions of human development— a long and healthy life, knowledge and a decent standard of living.” According to the most recent index, Norway, Australia and Switzerland take the podium for the highest human development.

In releasing the report in El Salvador, the UNDP stated:
The report "located El Salvador among the countries of medium human development with an HDI of 0.68, which has increased from 1990 by 28.5%.   It is located at position 117 of 188 countries. 
When you consider inequalities, the HDI value for El Salvador declines some 22.2%, which is less than the reduction observed in Latin American and the Caribbean.   The report calculated a gap in human developement between men and womes in the country, men achieved an HDI of 0.691 while women had 0.662. 
"We are convinced that in El Salvador, achieving human development for everyone is possible, with the adoption of national policies that prioritize attention on those who have been left behind," assured the resident representative of the UNDP in El Salvador, Christian Salazar Volkmann.
El Salvador's rank of 117 places it slightly ahead of its neighbors Honduras (130), Guatemala (125) and Nicaragua (124), but behind Costa Rica (66) and Panama (60).  The historical HDI displayed in the report shows that El Salvador made solid advances in the 15 years or so after the civil war ended, but much of the progress has slowed since 2010.   Today, the growing gap between rich and poor puts a brake on the country's ability to improve the level of human development.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Oscar Romero -- 37 years after his assassination

Today, March 24, is the 37th anniversary of the assassination/martyrdom of archbishop Oscar Romero.  

In El Salvador,  Romero news of the past week has focused on whether or not Romero will be canonized soon by the Roman Catholic church.   The country's Roman Catholic bishops are in Rome where they expressed their interest in a prompt canonization with a trip to El Salvador by Pope Francis, as well as the beatification of Rutilio Grande.   The Pope's response? -- everything will happen on the appropriate schedule.

Yesterday, human rights lawyers filed a petition with a court in San Salvador to reopen the case of Romero's assassination.   They are asking the court, now that the 1993 Amnesty Law has been nullified, to proceed judicially to establish the facts and the responsible parties surrounding El Salvador's most notorious murder.  

This year is the 100th anniversary of Oscar Romero's birth.   If you want to learn more about this towering figure of faith, justice and human rights,  I listed some of the best resources in this February 2015 post.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

El Salvador's water crisis

March 22 was the World Day for Water.    In El Salvador, it was an appropriate day to reflect on a crisis in the availability of clean water.    

According to statistics from the environment ministry (MARN), as reported in La Prensa Grafica, there has been a decline of 27% in the availability of clean water in the country over the past decade.
Why has this happened, when there is a six month rainy season each year?   The problem is that the surface waters in rivers and lakes are contaminated with pollution in much of the watershed that covers El Salvador.   There is the beginning of an effort to clean up the surface waters, but it will be a long time before that effort starts to show results.  The cost of treating contaminated surface water to make it drinkable is quite high.   As a result, much of the potable water used in the country must come from wells which tap the country's underground aquifers.

The country's aquifers are being drained faster than they are being replenished.   The rain water which falls on the surface is not making its way into the aquifers, but instead is running off into rivers and out into the ocean.   Water runs off instead of soaking into the ground because of deforestation, intensive agriculture in sugar cane zones, and because of increased pavement which comes with growing urbanization.  In addition, there is increasing demand for water from industry and from residential areas hooked into water systems supported by wells.      

Minister of the Environment and Natural Resources Lina Pohl agrees that the system for managing the extraction of water from the country's aquifers is quite disorganized and spread across multiple government bodies with many national businesses who don't see why they should comply with rules. Yet for years the country's lawmakers have been unable to pass a proposed General Water Law which would provide a framework for conserving this precious resource needed for all in El Salvador.

To see the water crisis in images, view this LPG photo gallery

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

El Salvador Attorney General opens new war crimes case

Since the nullifcation of the 1993 Amnesty Law in July, El Salvador's attorney general has been noticeably quiet concerning any cases he might actually bring involving crimes and atrocities during the war.     Although the El Mozote massacre case is moving forward, it is the lawyers for the victims and the court who have reopened and moved that case forward and not any actions by the FGR.

This week, attorney general Douglas Meléndez announced that his office is reopening a case from the civil war.   This first case involves the 1987 assassination of human rights advocate Herbert Anaya Sanabria.   Although a trial convicted an ERP guerrilla member for the murder, most believe that the assassination in the city of Mejicanos was carried out by government forces.   The man convicted was subsequently freed after the Amnesty Law was passed.

According to an Amnesty International Report in 1988:
His killing, carried out by men in plain clothes using silencers on their guns, followed repeated harassment and threats directed at Anaya himself and at other independent human rights monitors in El Salvador.  Anaya had previously been arrested in May 1986 on charges of collaboration with the armed opposition, and was released without trial in February 1987.
The murder of Herbert Anaya was investigated by the UN Truth Commission which was unable to determine which party had been responsible.  This is the UN Truth Commission Report summary of its findings:

Herbert Ernesto Anaya Sanabria, leader of the Human Rights Commission (nongovernmental), was shot and killed on the morning of 26 October 1987 in the parking lot outside his home in San Salvador.  
Two months later, National Police arrested a young man, Jorge Alberto Miranda Arévalo, a member of ERP, who initially stated that he had taken part in the murder as the look-out. He later retracted his confession. In 1991, a jury found him guilty and he was sentenced to the maximum penalty of 30 years in prison.  
The Commission finds that:  
1. For this case, it did not have sufficient time to resolve the following dilemma: the fact that there was evidence that a State security force or a death squad might have been responsible, and also evidence that the Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo (ERP) might have been responsible for the murder of Herbert Ernesto Anaya Sanabria.  
2. Miranda's trial and his treatment by the police violated his basic rights.  
3. The State failed in its duty under international law to protect human rights, properly investigate the murder of Herbert Anaya and bring to trial and punish the culprits.
Herbert Anaya's widow has always maintained that the government was responsible for killing her husband.

In announcing his decision to reopen the assassination case, attorney general Meléndez stated that Jorge Miranda would need to be tried again, but that if any relative or other interested persons had information about other material actors or intellectual authors of the crime, the prosecutors would pursue any leads.

The decision to make this the first case to be reopened is an interesting one.   Rather than choosing one of the emblematic massacre cases, like El Mozote or Rio Sumpul or El Calabozo, the attorney general has chosen, an important, but less well known case with facts which will be difficult to prove without the cooperating testimony of one of the participants.   We will have to wait and see what develops.

The next case to watch is the El Mozote hearings on March 29-30 to see what role the FGR's office plays in that case before the court in San Francisco Gotera.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

More than 10 people per day "disappeared" in 2016 in El Salvador

The mother spoke in a quiet voice in the small office of the human rights lawyer.  She told the story of her daughter's disappearance.  Her daughter had gotten in a pick-up for the ride to the highway and the bus which would take her home.   Three hours later, the girl had not arrived.   Calls to her cell phone went unanswered.   The mother was told that the pick-up had been stopped and her daughter removed.    That was all she knew.

Relatives had advised the mother not to report the event to the police.   There was probably gang involvement and getting the police involved would endanger the rest of the family.   The mother did not go to the police.   This visit to the human rights lawyers was the first time she had told the story to anyone outside of the family.   When eventually she went to the police accompanied by the lawyers, the police indicated it was unlikely there was much they could do.    Disappeared, presumed dead.

The daughter in this family is one of at least 3859 persons "disappeared" or missing in El Salvador during 2016.   That's a total of more than ten disappearances per day according to statistics reported by the country's attorney general Douglas Meléndez in a report to the National Assembly.   So far in 2017, there have been reports of 650 disappearances.   Meléndez also indicated there were probably more cases than these totals. These are just the reported cases. They are situations of unimaginable pain for the families.

Everyone seems to acknowledge that the vast majority of these cases relate to gang activity.  Meléndez did say that some of the cases could be common crime, or run-aways, or people leaving to migrate north without notifying anyone.   Other cases can be the result of disappearances caused by the security forces, or caused by vigilante death squads.    Because of a lack of investigation, however, no one really knows the break down.

El Diario de Hoy requested and received statistics from both the police and the attorney general.   Almost twice as many disappearances are being reported to the attorney general.  I am not sure of the reason for the disparity, but a criminologist quoted in the EDH report said this was the result of a lack of confidence in the police.  Both sets of statistics show the number of disappearances increasing every year from 2010 through 2014 and then declining in 2015 and 2016:

The police reported to EDH, that of the 11,252 disappearance cases reported to the police in the past 10 years, they had located only 1445 persons.   The police do not keep data on whether the persons were found alive or dead.

The question of disappearances has been one of significant political jockeying since the 2012 gang truce.    When murder rates fell by more than 50% during the truce, skeptics and opponents of the government asserted that disappearances had increased and that the decline in the murder rate simply meant that the police were not finding the bodies.    As murder rates decline with the "exceptional measures" put in place in March 2016, we can expect to see the same arguments being made.   The statistics reported yesterday do show the rate of disappearances declining, but not as quickly as the homicide rate.

The numbers of the missing are alarming, and they are rarely reported.    Compounding the situation, these cases get little attention from the government.    There is scarcely any support for the families with missing relatives.   The cases seem to have low priority for investigation and prosecution.  

The missing and their families need advocates.

Monday, March 20, 2017

New research on gang membership in El Salvador

There is important new research about gang membership in El Salvador and the possibilities of gang members leaving the gang life behind.    The US State Department funded study was performed by Florida International University along with FUNDE in El Salvador and produced a report titled The New Face of Street Gangs in Central America based on almost 1200 interviews with former and current gang members during 2016.   Find the English version of the report here and the Spanish version here.

First the study had to look at why youth join the gangs in the first place.   From the executive summary:
The results of the study suggest that Salvadoran youths keep joining the gangs as a result of problematic families, lack of opportunities, and a heightened perception of deprivation of social respect and affection in their communities. Gang organizations tap into such shortages to recruit and maintain an army that becomes instrumental in the control of new territories and the waging of war with enemies, including the police and security forces. However, from the standpoint of the gang members and former gang members, the main reasons why people continue joining the gang still revolve around the excitement from hanging out with peers and the development of social respect and public recognition. Young kids continue joining gang organizations because they provide assets that were not provided by their families and community, namely: friendship, protection, resources, and self-confidence. Thus, the gang becomes the center of the lives of the youngsters who joined at early ages. This view of the gangs remains unchallenged during the adolescent years, but starts to fade as the person matures, forms a family of his/her own, and faces the hardships brought by gang violence and law enforcement persecution.
When can gang members leave the gang?   From the executive summary:
Gang desistance is possible and it seems more common than usually believed. However, the findings of this research also indicate that although the decision to leave the gang is seemingly an individual choice, it also depends on the gang organization’s acquiescence. In El Salvador, the progression toward gang desistance has to be constantly negotiated with the overwhelming power of the gang. This entails a delicate and lengthy process of negotiation with gang leaders. In most cases, desistance is a delicate process of separation: gang members expecting to leave the gang reduce their participation in gang meetings and gang activities, start 7 visiting the church, or devote more time to their families. All of these extra-gang activities are conducted with utmost attention to the sensibilities of the gang organization by sending clear signals of loyalty and disposition to cooperate.  
According to the results of the survey, intentions to leave the gang are associated with the following circumstances. First, gang members harbor greater intentions to exit the gang if they experience their first incarceration at an older age. Second, plans to abandon the gang increase with time while inside the gang and as the person is exposed to the hardships of gang life at an adult age. In other words, intentions to abandon the gang do not appear just as a function of age, but as a result of the duration of active gang membership. However, the willingness to leave a gang becomes especially pressing if the gang member manages to find a job in the informal economy and is touched by a religious experience, usually in the Evangelical churches. Both occurrences—informal jobs and religious affiliation—seem to play the most significant role in convincing people to leave the gang.  
Having the desire to leave a gang is not enough as former gang members face a litany of challenges and obstacles, the main one being the gang organizations themselves. The results of the survey show that an important percentage of former gang members said that they were threatened by their own peers when they decided to leave the gang. According to the data, more than 58% of former gang members have received threats against themselves or their families for abandoning the gang. Other challenges include the total absence of personal skills to work in a stable job, the lack of viable opportunities for training and employment, the constant threat from former gang rivals, the harassment of the police and security forces, and social discrimination for their past deeds and appearances (tattoos).  
The religious experience plays a major role in the path toward gang desistance. It provides a protective space that allows aspiring deserters to reestablish links with the community, build their families, and seek educational and labor opportunities without the harassment of the gang organization. It is not surprising, then, that many of the successful cases of desistance that occur in El Salvador occur under the path of religious conversion and integration to an Evangelical church. However, gang members willing to leave the gang need to show an absolute commitment not only to their religious faith but also to the values associated with a pious life. Results show that this is not easy for many individuals. Gang organizations tend to police the moral life of their former gang members and, in many cases, exert an unrelenting control on the life of desisters, even when they no longer belong to the organization. 

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Can El Salvador's historic center be rescued?

The historic center of San Salvador is the location of many important historic and cultural sites including the Metropolitan Cathedral with the crypt of Blessed Oscar Romero, the former National Palace, the National Theater, Plaza Libertad, Plaza Gerardo Barrios, El Rosario Church, the National Library, the Museum of the Central Reserve Bank and more.  The historic center is also the location of a huge sprawling formal and informal market which spills out of market buildings and onto the streets and sidewalks for many blocks.   Finally, the historic center has been a place where El Salvador's street gangs are deeply entrenched and where extortion demands backed up with threats of deadly violence predominate.

Restoring the historic center has been one of the focal points of San Salvador mayor Nayib Bukele's time in office.   Currently the city government is remodeling the two most important plazas in the sector, Plaza Libertad and Plaza Gerardo Barrios, seeking to make them visitor friendly and secure.

Bukele has also worked to relocate some of the informal vendors in the sector who clog the streets and sidewalks.  The construction of a new metropolitan market is intended to give vendors and their customers a safe and clean environment, although the first market is not nearly large enough to make much of a dent in the thousands of vendors who take their posts in the city center.

In an effort to reduce violence in the city's center, in June the national government also made a significant deployment of military troops to the area to work with the National Civilian Police.  Heavily armed soldiers can be seen throughout the zone these days.

In the context of all this work by the city government under Bukele, comes last week's mid-day shoot-out which killed six.  According to news reports, gang members came into the market areas on Wednesday and killed one of the private security guards (vigilantes)  who work in the zone.    In reprisal for the killing, fellow security guards banded together and went searching for the gang members responsible. When the killing stopped, five gang members had been killed in different parts of the city's center in addition to the original slaying of a security guard.

The shootout comes at a bad time for mayor Bukele.  The FMLN has just announced that it will back Bukele for another term as mayor in the 2018 elections (although Bukele has not announced that he will run).   Bukele is regularly mentioned as a 2019 candidate for president, although El Faro reports that the FMLN will choose its chief Medardo Gonzalez as its candidate, and Bukele said in an interview that he would need to compromise too many principles in order to run as the FMLN's candidate for president.    At the same time, La Prensa Grafica, one of the country's major newspapers which has an ongoing bitter feud with Bukele, has been running articles highlighting perceptions of danger in the historic center.

Bukele complained about the coverage in a tweet, pointing out that prior to Wednesday there had not been a single murder this year in the historic center of San Salvador.

Bukele has also been pointing to an overall reduction of 60% in the crime rate in the zone.

The day of the shoot-out, supporters in the Bukele camp suggested that the violence could have been instigated by the conservative media or political forces who want to denigrate progress made in the city center and who want to damage Bukele's prospects.    While I doubt that the shoot-outs were politically sponsored, there is no doubt that the spin which major media sources put on these events has a political slant.

After the shootout, Bukele announced that the municipal police (CAM) would support the efforts of the PNC in bringing security to the zone.  A group of vendors in the zone, however, denounced the presence of CAM officers, claiming that they abused and stole from the vendors in the zone.   The vendors want security to continue to be provided by private security guards hired by the vendors association.  On Sunday, Bukele demonstrated his considerable political skills in calling a meeting with representatives of the vendors within the National Palace, where they reached an accord on security measures.

The status of the historic center of San Salvador is of great practical, symbolic and psychological importance for the country.    Hundreds of thousands of people work or travel through its streets on a weekly basis.   Major historical events occurred there.   The country's beloved Oscar Romero is entombed there.   The efforts of Nayib Bukele to restore the city's heart and to restore a sense of civic pride are significant, and the country's press should wish him well, rather than continuing to demonize the historic center and those who live and work there.